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The Grand Cru Bordeaux Experience

Been back at the office desk for a week or two now? Memories of high-days and holidays rapidly fading? Wondering where the next serious Bordeaux fix will come from? Well, why not bypass the bottle and the corkscrew and come straight to Bordeaux with me, and gain entry (for exclusive tastings and lunches) to some of the top addresses in all Bordeaux?

This trip, The Bordeaux Grand Cru Experience, is one Adam Stebbing of SmoothRed (a well-established company offering tailor-made wine tours, holidays, events and experiences) and I have been mooting for some time now, and one I first wrote about on this blog back in October.

SmoothRed - The Grand Cru Experience

Now though, the dates are set, the appointments are made, and the full itinerary is online. Here’s a taster of what the trip will involve:

October 1st 2014 – St Emilion: Flight from London Gatwick to Bordeaux, coach to St Emilion, Château Canon-la-Gaffelière (for lunch) and then Château Angélus (to spot the new carillon, pictured above). Dinner and hotel in Bordeaux City.

October 2nd 2014 – Graves and Sauternes: Château Haut-Brion first, and as if one first growth weren’t enough, after a tasting and lunch it’s onto Château d’Yquem (pictured below).

October 3rd 2014 – The Médoc: Tour up the famous ‘Route des Châteaux’. Visit Château Pontet-Canet, now turning out wines to challenge the very best in the commune. Then it will be lunch at Château Pichon-Baron – where lunch, I’m told, is not to be missed! In the afternoon, we head south to Margaux and Château Rauzan-Segla.

SmoothRed - The Grand Cru Experience

October 4th 2014 – Bordeaux and Graves: There is no let up in terms of quality on the final day. The morning allows us all time to take in Bordeaux city, followed by lunch and tasting at Château Haut-Bailly, some of the very best wines of the entire appellation. Fly back to London early evening.

Prices: £1679.00 per person for 3 star hotel option (based on double room occupancy), £1994.00 per person for 5 star upgrade option (also based on double room occupancy).

There are fourteen places, so this will be a very intimate tour. If interested, check out the SmoothRed itinerary here: Grand Cru Bordeaux Experience or phone Adam on +44 (0) 207 1988 369, or email him on sales@smoothred.co.uk.

2013 Winedoctor Disclosures

For several years now I have made an annual statement of support for Winedoctor; a way of ensuring transparency regarding who in Bordeaux and the Loire Valley (and anywhere else for that matter) helps me out, so that readers can take this into account when I report on the wines. I used to store these disclosure statements in my ‘Features’ section, and although this part of the Winedoctor website is still free to read, outside the paywall, I thought I should bring my disclosure statement out onto the blog lest I be criticised for hiding it in an inaccessible corner of the website.

I would usually publish this review in late December but the past six weeks have been particularly hectic chez Winedoctor, hence the delay.

First of all, as is customary, some details of support and other benefits received during the course of 2013:

InterLoire: Through Sopexa, who currently handle marketing for InterLoire, the generic promotional body for most of the Loire’s appellations, I received support to attend the Salon des Vins de Loire in Angers in February. I was reimbursed the cost of my petrol, airport parking, flights and rail fares in France. InterLoire also paid two nights accommodation directly to my hotel. I paid for the other nights myself. In addition, I also accepted a trip to the Muscadet region in spring, funded by InterLoire and arranged through Sopexa. Costs involved included flights from Edinburgh to Nantes, via London City Airport, accommodation for two nights, transport over three days, and subsistence including lunches and two ‘winemaker dinners’.
Le Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins du Centre: I accepted two nights accommodation in a hotel in Chavignol, the expense met by the BIVC, the regional body for the Central Loire appellations including Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and so on. Other expenses I met myself.
Bouvet-Ladubay: I attended a spectacle, a party in the Bouvet-Ladubay cellars during the 2013 Salon des Vins de Loire. I took advantage of free transport there from Angers and back again at the end of the evening.
Yvon Mau: I was grateful for accommodation provided by the Bordeaux négociant Yvon Mau during the primeurs week. I accepted five nights in a left-bank château, uncatered accommodation and possibly the most spooky stay in Bordeaux I have ever experienced – I was alone in a very big cru bourgeois château, in the wilds of the Médoc. Other aspects of the trip and expenses I met myself (see below).
Gifts received: A Christmas hamper from Sopexa, sent to all journalists who submitted suggestions for the Cracking Wines from France tasting. I received two bottles of wine, from Domaine Luneau-Papin and Les Vignerons du Pallet, during my trip to Muscadet.
Samples received: a small number of wine samples were received, principally from UK merchants such as Cadman Fine Wines and Hyde Park Wines, and where the wines have been written up this has been declared.
Lunching and dining: I accepted dinner on one night paid for by Yvon Mau at Les Sources de Caudalie during the Bordeaux primeurs. I also had lunch at Château Haut-Bailly. I had lunch with Claude Lafond, in Reuilly (pictured below). During the Salon des Vins de Loire I had dinner with Claude Papin, Vincent Ogereau and Yves Guégniard which the three vignerons paid for.

On the whole I think I have managed to cut back further on my dependence/association with the wine trade in 2013. Much of the costs associated with my trips to Bordeaux and the Loire I have met myself, and in each case outside funding has come from négociants or generic bodies rather than individual producers. The only other region I visited during 2013 was Madeira, again I funded this myself. I have not taken any other press trips, single producer or otherwise.

2013 Winedoctor Disclosures

As is customary I also document below the expenses I met myself during the course of 2013:

London, Loire Benchmark: I met the cost of a trip to London for the Loire Benchmark Tasting, principally for the Loire 2012 vintage. Costs included rail fare to London and subsistence.
Angers: Most travel expenses for the Salon des Vins de Loire were met my InterLoire, but I paid for three nights in a hotel and all my subsistence other than my dinner with Claude Papin & co (see above).
Bordeaux, Primeurs: I travelled to Bordeaux for a week and met my travel costs myself; this includes transport to airport, flights to Bordeaux, and hire car for eight days. Other than one meal paid for by Yvon Mau I met all subsistence costs myself. I paid for two nights in a hotel in Libourne to complement my stay in the château on the left bank.
London, RAW and Real Wine Fairs: In 2013 these fairs were at different times (I enjoyed the convenience of ‘competing’ fairs in 2012) and I paid for travel from Edinburgh to both, by train in each case, myself. Extra costs were incurred in each case, (a) by missing my train and having to stay overnight in London for one, and (b) hitting a deer on the way home from the railway station on the other. These were expensive tastings to attend; I probably could have bought all the wines I tasted online and had them shipped to Edinburgh for less than the cost of the repairs to my car. Such is life. Still, I suppose I came off better than the deer.
Madeira: I covered the costs of transfers, flights, hire car and accommodation in Madeira myself. I paid for travel to visit Barbeito and Blandy’s.
London: Costs associated with attendance at four London tastings in March, September, October and November, these being the Union des Grands de Bordeaux, Institute of Masters of Wine, Cru Bourgeois and Bordeaux Index tastings were met by me. In the latter case this was by train; for the other three tastings, the costs included flights from Edinburgh, transfers, parking and so on.
Loire, Harvest Trip: I covered the expenses incurred during this trip, including parking and flights, myself. I did not pay for the two nights in Chavignol (see above). I stayed and travelled with Jim Budd so there were no other accommodation costs, but I contributed towards subsistence.
Bordeaux, Harvest Trip: I covered the cost of this trip myself; this includes flights from London and back to Edinburgh, airport parking, hire car for four days, subsistence and three nights in Bordeaux hotels.

That concludes my disclosure statement for 2013. As indicated above, I have added disclosures to wine sample reviews where appropriate, so I hope transparency is adequate. As for the year ahead I will, as I stated in my recent report on the Gitton Père et Fils Sancerre X-elis, be focusing on Sancerre and other Central Loire appellations (as I have neglected them for so long, and my enthusiasm has been reignited by my recent trip to the Loire), reporting on Loire 2013, and expanding my coverage throughout. For Bordeaux, I will have my usual cycle of Bordeaux reports (expect detail on the 2013, 2012, 2010 and 2004 vintages, as well as from-my-cellar reports on 2001 and 1999), more Bordeaux profiles for smaller estates (smaller in ambition, and in price too) from left and right banks, and the completion of my Bordeaux guide (at which point I move onto the Loire, a daunting prospect indeed). Santé!

The Death of Sauternes

I was concerned to learn today, thanks to this piece written by Jane Anson, of a move by a number of Sauternes producers to apply for the Graves appellation for their dry wines. History can teach us something of what might happen should they succeed.

First, a little background. In Sauternes, many estates produce a dry cuvée alongside their sweet wine, a move which has in many cases gone a long way to help balance the books. With sweet wines chronically unfashionable, dry wines are a useful addendum to an estate’s portfolio; not only do they reduce the volume of Sauternes building up in the cellars (helping to balance supply and demand, and supporting already fragile prices) but they are a distinct revenue stream in themselves. They may sell for less money (although not that much less, to be honest, especially when you get away from the really famous estates) but the yields are much higher; the volume of juice and thus wine obtained might be three or four times what you get with dehydrated, botrytised grapes.

The Sauternes producers have a problem though; although you might think most people buy on the basis of critics’ recommendations, or your own knowledge and experience, on the domestic French market appellations are still very important. A Graves is held in higher regard than a basic Bordeaux, and the Sauternes producers feel they have been held back by the fact that their dry wines only have the basic Bordeaux appellation, and not the more prestigious Graves appellation. They see a chance to label their dry wines as Graves as a route to higher prices and better sales; hence the call for just such a reclassification.

Château d'Yquem

They may well be right; just to the north of Sauternes and Barsac is a little sweet wine appellation called Cérons, and it is one I have recently described in my newly expanded Bordeaux wine guide. Here in Cérons, the dry whites have always had the Graves appellation. And so when interest in sweet wines fell away, there was a lucrative route out of destitution; stop making lesser-known and unfashionably sweet Cérons, and start making more appealingly dry Graves. That’s exactly what the majority of estates did, and this is why Cérons is today little more than a Bordeaux curiosity; only a handful of estates still make sweet wines, while most have converted totally to dry.

In Sauternes, a move to the dry whites also being eligible for the Graves appellation will ultimately have the same effect. Sure, big name estates will carry on, and it may be that with improved income from the dry whites the future of the sweet wines at these estates is even more secure. But – regardless of the moaning of merchants who must suffer the Lafite-Rieussec tie-in, and who find Sauternes a chronically difficult sell – there is still at least some interest in the wines of Yquem (pictured above), Rieussec, Suduiraut, Lafaurie-Peyraguey and the like. These wines will continue on. But you can wave goodbye to the likes of Haut-Bergeron, Dudon, Bastor-Lamontagne and other small châteaux that are more likely closer to the fiscal edge. Even lesser classed growth estates, like d’Arche, Romer, Romer du Hayot and the lesser-spotted Suau will feel the pull of dry wines. A move like that proposed may well make those with dry wines to flog a few extra sous (are there any involved in the process that have a vested interest in the prices of the dry wines, but are not worried about the sweet wines, I ask myself), but it would change the landscape of Sauternes forever. I hope that the move is soundly rejected by all those who care about the future of Sauternes.

2013 Reflections: Other Great Wines

In all honesty, beyond the Loire and Bordeaux, so focused is my attention on these two regions, the list of truly ‘great’ wines from other regions is rather short. Some wines do stick in my mind though, usually for the different experiences they offered. The 2008 World’s End Crossfire is one good example of this; I taste and drink very little from California, if indeed anything at all, so any bottles that come my way are bound to be of interest. This particular wine was all the more noteworthy for being a Jonathan Maltus wine, and I think there were traits within that I also see in his wines from closer to home, in St Emilion.

The 1998 Domaine Tempier Bandol La Tourtine I encountered a month or two ago was also fairly smart, but without a doubt the best non-Loire non-Bordeaux red wine experience of 2013 was the 1983 Chave Hermitage, which I drank at dinner with Jim Budd, Claude Papin, Vincent Ogereau and Yves Guégniard (it was Jim that brought the wine to dinner). Not only was this an excellent example of Hermitage (and it’s not that long since I last visited this particular part of the Rhône – was it 2012?) but it also brought back lots of memories of Chester Claret Club, a tasting group I once frequented, one where I learnt a lot from some very knowledgeable palates. This was just the sort of wine that would have cropped up in a Chester tasting. This bottle was in excellent nick, and was certainly one of my top reds of the year, full-stop.

2013 Reflections: Other Great Wines

Interestingly, the Rhône also yielded a very memorable white this year, the 2012 Pierre Gaillard Condrieu (above), a wine which spoke more of minerality and precision than most Viogniers could dream of doing. And Alsace also did fairly well, as I really enjoyed the 1993 Trimbach Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Émile – proof that Riesling really is immortal, regardless of whether or not the wine has residual sugar, as well as the 1998 Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris Heimbourg. Not even one of Olivier Humbrecht’s top wines, this was a lovely example of why this domaine is so famous.

Some white wines for which I had high hopes managed to disappoint, including two from a trio from Domaine Cauhapé from the 2003 vintage. Only the 2003 Domaine Cauhapé Jurançon Noblesse du Temps really impressed, although even here I would have enjoyed more acidity I think. Well, that’s 2003 for you (I keeping saying this, I know).

2013 Reflections: Other Great Wines

Alright, so there are some decent wines here, but if there is one vinous theme I will forever associate with 2013 it is fortified wine, especially a burgeoning appreciation of Sherry, as well as some great fortified wine discoveries in Madeira. From Spain, the Cayetano del Pino (above) wines impressed greatly, especially the Palo Cortado. Being honest, I actually wrote about this wine on New Year’s Eve 2012, so I mush have drank it before 2013 began, but I’m including it here anyway. Well, why not? Also pretty good was the Osborne Sibarita Very Old Rare Oloroso, a rather full-on style for a 30-year old wine, but pretty good with it.

Things got really serious with Madeira this year when I visited the island during the summer. I was besotted with the Barbeito Madeira Colheita Canteiro Verdelho 1996, which I have since added to the cellar, but was blown away by the Barbeito Madeira Sercial 1910, closely followed by the Barbeito Madeira Malvasia 1834 (below). These wines have such fabulous vigour and life, it was impossible tasting them to believe they were 103 and 179 years old respectively. And from Blandy’s there were other memorable wines, including the Blandy’s Madeira Colheita Verdelho 1995 and particular the Blandy’s Madeira Bual 1968. None could match the Barbeito wines though. Getting an appointment at Blandy’s was pretty difficult, and eventually their UK importer set one up for me. This was more successful than my appointment at Henriques & Henriques, which I arranged myself, only to be stood up when I turned up on time, hence the absence of a Henriques & Henriques report after my return. Did somebody say the Madeira producers were struggling?

2013 Reflections: Other Great Wines

Returning to Spain for a moment, I discovered a new region named Lebrija thanks to UK wine merchant Warren Edwardes. Lebrija lies next-door to Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and seems – in my limited experience, admittedly – to have the potential for top quality wines which are apparently sold at rock-bottom prices. The González Palacios Lebrija Old Oloroso was my favourite of the two wines I tried. I know the wines of the Douro far better than I know any of these aforementioned regions, and yet I have had few memorable Ports this year, the only noteworthy bottle being the 1983 Warre’s Vintage Port. To be honest though, although this was a very fine bottle – 1983 was a good vintage, but not a remarkable one – I don’t think I would regard it as truly ‘great’, although the older Madeiras described above certainly were. I have, perhaps, been converted.

That’s enough looking back at 2013 I think. Tomorrow I will publish my disclosure sheet for the year, then it’s on with 2014. I can think of plenty of other Sherries I want to try.

2013 Reflections: Bordeaux

Looking back at the past twelve months, I see Bordeaux has kept me busy just as much as the Loire, perhaps more so. I visited the region twice, for eight days in April, and then three days in October, taking in predominantly the wines of the 2012 and 2011 vintages respectively. These were the most significant updates of the year, with a 73,000-word report for Bordeaux 2012 with 350 tasting notes, and a 22,000-word report and 120 new notes for Bordeaux 2011. Thanks to the annual Ten-Years On Tasting hosted by Bordeaux Index I was able to make a thorough review of 2003 Bordeaux (11,000-word report, 70+ notes), and earlier in the year I published a review on 2010 Bordeaux (22,000 words, 120+ notes), following tastings late in 2012. I’ve also published a briefer look back at Bordeaux 2000 with wines from my cellar (16 notes). That’s not a bad schedule for twelve months, and I don’t think there is any other source of Bordeaux coverage – in print or online – that is as broad or as detailed. If there is, please do let me know – I might just subscribe.

To me, though, taking all the enjoyment from wine that is possible isn’t something that can be achieved through lists of notes and scores. It’s a buying guide, but it doesn’t bring you real depth of knowledge. That is why I persist in publishing other Bordeaux reviews, specifically a broad range of new and updated château profiles, as well as tasting updates and other reports – all told I have made over 130 such Bordeaux updates over the last twelve months. The past year has also seen a huge expansion in my Bordeaux guide, now in 44 instalments (a few at the tail-end have yet to be published, but I’m getting there). Hopefully this gives all subscribers, novice or experienced, the required depth of information on Bordeaux. When I finish the Bordeaux guide (I’ve called a temporary halt on updates while I clarify an important discrepancy on the accepted wisdom concerning Bordeaux terroir with contacts in the region) I will roll out one of similar detail for the Loire.

So what of my favourite Bordeaux wines of 2013? As I tend to avoid the Bordeaux party scene during the primeurs, and am not important enough to be invited to dinners where older vintages are poured, most of my favourite wines come from the past decade. Mine won’t be a list rich in 19th- or 18th-century rarities. Still, at least I can honestly state that I have never been duped by a bottle of 1787 Lafite or similar, and I haven’t yet fallen foul of mysterious millionaires pouring unattainable (or indeed impossible) wines, nor has anyone offered me Thomas Jefferson bottles from a suspiciously undisclosed source. In short, there are no fakes on Winedoctor! The wines featured here are also attainable; if any float your boat, there is at least a chance you might be able to track one down, if your wallet is sufficiently bulging, admittedly.

Bordeaux 2013

Early on in the year I published notes on the 2010 vintage, as mentioned above, and I shouldn’t really include these wines here as they were tasted in 2012 nevertheless there is no doubt that this is a great vintage that deserves to be in any Bordeaux-drinker’s cellar. Most striking were the 2010 Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte and 2010 Château Haut Bailly (pictured above) in Pessac-Léognan, in the case of the latter this being just one in a string of brilliant wines I tasted this year. During a visit to Château Haut-Bailly in April I retasted the 2010, which was consistently impressive, but I was equally besotted with the 2009, 2005 and 2000 vintages.

There were also great successes up the left bank, and I fell in love with 2010 Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste (which has since been added to my cellar), as well as 2010 Château Pichon-Baron, 2010 Château Pichon-Lalande and 2010 Château Léoville-Barton. It is not always the highest scoring or most famous names that stick in the mind, however, as one of the most memorable wines was undoubtedly 2010 Château Gloria, punching way above its weight (and also now tucked away in the cellar).

Over on the right bank, 2010 Château Clinet is brooding and memorable, while numerous Sauternes châteaux also made the most of a good vintage; the 2010 Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey, 2010 Château Climens and 2010 Château Coutet are all tip-top. The vintage also showed me what good value everyday drinking Bordeaux can give us, provided we know where to look for it. Appellations such as Montagne-St-Emilion and Castillon are happy hunting grounds, as the 2010 Château Guadet Plaisance and 2010 Château L’Estang proved; I have these names lodged in my memory as a ready response to anyone who says Bordeaux is only for the rich and the foolish.

Bordeaux 2013

The 2012 vintage isn’t likely to throw up any truly great wines, although I was impressed by the 2012 Château Haut-Brion, 2012 Château Lafleur from Jacques Guinaudeau (pictured above) and 2012 Château Clinet on tasting (in keeping with my thoughts that the ‘hot-spots’ in 2012 are Pessac-Léognan and Pomerol). Best of all though was the 2012 Château L’Église-Clinet which, in a perhaps rare moment of concordance (I say perhaps because I generally avoid reading other people’s notes, especially at primeur time) between my palate and that of Robert Parker, this was my favourite wine of the vintage, and his favourite too.

Looking back to wines pulled from my own cellar, the most memorable was certainly the 2000 Château Gruaud-Larose, a wine of huge stature and composition which has an identity crisis, as I believe it thinks it is a first growth. This vintage naturally threw up many good wines, although none that have stuck in my mind like this one. Interestingly, many showed a surprising streak of green, not something I expected from the vintage in question. I have also tasted and reported on a lot of wines from 2003 this year, and it says something about my palate I think that none of these have made it onto my ‘favourite wines’ list – and my tasting history this year includes the supposed ‘greats’ such as 2003 Château Montrose and a number of first growths, left bank and right. No, I’ll pass on the Pavie, thank you.

Bordeaux 2013

My tastings towards the end of the year bring us forward in time once again, to another vintage which, on first inspection, I would have thought would throw up no great wines, in red at least. But the 2011 Château Lafleur is a triumph, even before we take into account the character of the vintage, and although the 2011 Château Palmer (tasted with Thomas Duroux, pictured above) is a notch behind it is a remarkable wine for the vintage and I believe the best in the commune in 2011 (although I have not retasted Château Margaux yet, but this was my impression from the primeurs last year). As for the 2010 Château Margaux, however, tasted in October, this was a true stunner, a great wine from a great vintage.

So 2011 is not much of a success story for reds, but for the sweet whites it is a rocking vintage, with my top three wines (not including Yquem which I didn’t taste this year) being 2011 Château Suduiraut, 2011 Château Climens and 2011 Château Coutet, but there are many other choices of a close level of quality. As with some of the 2010 reds, I have also added one of these three to my cellar (metaphorically at least – it hasn’t been delivered yet), this being the Climens, an estate that I visited and provided an update on earlier this year. The 2010 Château Climens was just as memorable as the 2011, although both were eclipsed by the 2009 Château Climens tasted at the château, and the 2001 Château Climens from my cellar; these are both spectacular wines.

Bordeaux 2013

So as with the Loire, there are plenty of Bordeaux buying and drinking options around; the difference here, of course, is that the prices can be a major barrier to many, me included. But with the very difficult 2013 coming onto the market soon, I suspect it will be to these other vintages that buyers will now turn. But let’s not judge 2013 before it has turned up for the trial; I will go to Bordeaux in April, to the primeurs, to assess quality for myself.

As for 2014, I will finish my Bordeaux guide soon, and continue to add new profiles and update old ones. Expect in-depth reviews of the 2013, 2012, 2010 and 2004 vintages. In the next few months I also have small ‘from my cellar’ reports on the 1999 and 2001 vintages, as well as a large report on Bordeaux 2009, which I alluded to in my recent post on 2009 Giscours. And, if you fancy going to Bordeaux to see it all for yourself, there will be a Winedoctor-led tour with SmoothRed Wine Tours in October. I will publish more details online here soon.

Later in the week, time permitting (hopefully before the year is out), my favourite wines from beyond Bordeaux and the Loire. It might be a short list though!

2013 Reflections: Loire

It has been a busy year for me as far as the Loire is concerned. I visited in February, staying over for five days for the Salon des Vins de Loire, visiting the Renaissance and Dive Bouteille tastings at the same time. I returned in June, passing a couple of days in the Muscadet region, visiting and tasting at a handful of top domaines. Finally, I returned in October, making some harvest-time visits with Jim Budd in Bourgueil, St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, Vouvray, other Touraine vineyards, Reuilly, Menetou-Salon, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. As a consequence I have made 90 Loire updates to Winedoctor this year, including tasting and vintage reports, reports on latest releases from a number of domaines, as well as new profiles and profile updates. This doesn’t include my weekend wine reports, which also tend to feature the Loire. I can’t be sure how many new tasting notes or words written that would translate into, other than “a lot”.

A scan through my tasting notes reveals about fifteen wines that really rose a notch above all the wines of the Loire Valley that I tasted and drank this year. Unsurprisingly, these make for a roll-call of the great and the good from the Loire.

From Muscadet, both the Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur lie Le L d’Or 2012 and the Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Château-Thébaud Clos des Morines 2010 showed superb potential; both were samples from cuve though (the Château-Thébaud cuvée is a cru communal prototype which sees three years on the lees before bottling). In each case new blood is at least partially responsible; at Luneau-Papin, Pierre-Marie Luneau and his wife Marie Chartier (pictured below) are now in charge, while at Domaine de la Pépière Rémi Branger works alongside Marc Ollivier.

Loire 2013

Although I found some enticing examples of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé this year, from the likes of Vacheron, Pierre Martin and Jonathon Pabiot, none really pushed all the buttons required to make it into my list of favourite wines. And as I haven’t really got to grips with the Côte Roannaise, that means all our other wines come from the Loire heartland of Anjou, Saumur and Touraine. Well, just Anjou and Touraine, actually.

I have always been keen to promote the Loire as an excellent source of dry white wine and also red wine, rather than just the sweet wines which are already widely appreciated, nevertheless my look back at 2013 might suggest that sweet wines rule the roost. Two dry wines, the 2009 Les Noëls de Montbenault and 2005 Les Noëls de Montbenault from Richard Leroy were superb, but no other dry wines could quite match up to their performance, although to be fair many wines from the likes of Pithon-Paillé came close, clearly showing what an exciting source of dry whites the Anjou appellation can be.

Loire 2013

It was the sweet wines that dominate my memories of 2013 though, in particular from Château Pierre-Bise and Domaine de la Bergerie, many of which I tasted with proprietors Claude Papin and Yves Guégniard early on in the year. From Claude, the 2011 Chaume was an absolute delight, really the equal of his 2010 Quarts de Chaume. But from Yves three vintages of his Quarts de Chaume, 2011, 2009 and 2007, served in succession were simply breathtaking, the 2007 tear-jerking in its lifted purity and almost ethereal aromatics. I have been tucking the Pierre-Bise wines – dry as well as sweet of course – away in the cellar for some time, but if anyone would like to tell me where I can get hold of Yves’ wines (other than at the ‘cellar door’) I would be very interested to know. Why does nobody import these wines?

The region with the biggest and best showing, though is Touraine, where my favourite wines come in all forms, sparkling, white, red and sweet. I have had some superb experiences with the Chinons of the 2009 and 2010 vintages recently, having featured many from Bernard Baudry, Couly-Dutheil and Philippe Alliet as my ‘weekend wines’, but it is the first of these three domaines that put on the greatest show, with the 2009 Chinon La Croix Boissée, a stunning wine set to do great things in the future. Looking further back in time though, the 1989 Chinon Clos de la Dioterie from Charles Joguet, tasted later in the year, was also a striking wine.

Loire 2013

Otherwise Vouvray is the order of the day, with one lonely Montlouis popping up. The latter is a wine I have featured before, and simply can’t praise enough, the 2008 Clos Habert Demi-Sec from François Chidaine; this is a stunning wine which takes my breath away whenever I taste it. To be fair though, François (pictured above) has a superb portfolio with an amazing combination of high quality and consistency. Why he hasn’t been elevated to the level of Dagueneau, Clos Rougeard or similar I can’t understand; buy these wines while you still can is my advice.

One young upstart who makes it into my list is Vincent Carême, across the river in Vouvray; I am sure he and his wife Tania would rather I talk about his still wines, which are of a very good quality, but I am still having too much fun with the sparkling 2008 L’Ancestrale. Otherwise, the old guard still dominates, with a trio of Moelleux Réserve cuvées from Philippe Foreau – the 2009, 2005 and 2003 – all simply breathtaking in their depth and complexity, the 2002 Pétillant Réserve and 2008 Le Mont Demi-Sec from Domaine Huet both remarkable, and the 2009 Cuvée Alexandre from Domaine des Auibuisières showing huge potential.

Loire 2013

In the case of Foreau, I see no need for further comment; the wines here can frequently be stunning. The wines of Huet deserve a few clarifying words though; there have been concerns raised about a number of wines from this domaine, especially in the 2002 vintage, where there have been reports of oxidation. This wasn’t an issue with this bottle (pictured above, and drank sometime back in February) but I will have more detail on this in the next few weeks, in a forthcoming report covering younger and older (the range is from 2002 to 2012) vintages of sparkling and sec Vouvray from this domaine, looking both at quality (in 2012 especially) and at whether or not the wines show any signs of oxidation.

It has been a great year for Loire drinking and buying, with 2009 and 2010 giving us great reds, 2009, 2010 and 2011 giving us some superb sweet wines from Anjou, 2010 and 2012 being very fine vintages for Muscadet and 2012 a tip-top year for Touraine and Central Vineyard Sauvignons. Sadly, 2013 probably won’t live up to any of these high standards, but there is always 2014 I suppose……

Tomorrow, all going well, a look back at Bordeaux.

2013 Reflections

It’s that time where all wine writers want to look back on the year just gone, often through choosing a list of favourite wines from the last twelve months, or a count of articles published and words written, books published or awards won. In fact, maybe that time of year has already passed – it is something most writers seem to want to get out of the way by Christmas, even though it seems quite likely that festive drinking should throw up a few bottles eligible for the “best wines” list. I know mine has.

In previous years I have often published a more tongue-in-cheek review of the year, accounts of my mishaps and misadventures in the pursuit of wine knowledge. This year wasn’t really short of such misadventures, perhaps the most dramatic of which occurred during my journey home after judging at the Decanter World Wine Awards. Having travelled back up from London by train I made my way home from the train station by car. Travelling along unlit country roads, very late at night, it was pretty quiet; with a lone car coming towards me in the opposite direction I dipped my headlights, reducing (sadly) my ability to see into the dark gloom ahead. And then it appeared in the beam of the headlights, a life-form, alien-like, a brown body seemingly floating above the ground. Within an instant I perceived four spindly legs – so not ‘floating’ at all then – and each leg was trying to go in a different direction. I’m afraid an instant later the strange being made contact with the front of my car.

Deer Damage, May 2013

Being a very small deer – it all happened so fast that the impact had occurred before I even realised what this strangely put-together lifeform with no head (which must have been bent down, or perhaps up out of the beam of my dipped headlights) could be – the damage to my car (as above) was not that great. You can still see bits of fur embedded in the bumper. The photograph doesn’t show the dent on the bonnet where I believe its head impacted. I checked the deer – it was quite dead, and having been travelling at 60 mph (spot on the speed limit) I am certain it was, thankfully, killed instantly. The repairs were not cheap though, despite the unimpressive appearance above. I am afraid my attendance at the Decanter World Wine Awards turned out to be rather more expensive than expected.

I am sure that, if I were to sit and reflect, I would find other droll or disastrous moments during 2013 to discuss (not least being refused admission to the last train to Scotland in Kings Cross Station later in the year because, despite the fact it had not left the platform, the doors were locked ready for departure), but it is the requirement to “sit and reflect” that is the problem. This year I haven’t really had much time to spend on thinking, or reflecting, or planning. The reason is that I have been working so hard on improving and expanding the information behind the Winedoctor paywall, which was established on March 31st this year, in order to give my subscribers the best possible service for their money. It has been this move to running a subscription service, more than anything else, that I will remember when I think back to 2013.

The move from funding Winedoctor through advertising to a subscription service was not one I undertook lightly. Who would subscribe? How many? How much to charge? There was some welcome support from a number of quarters, including Will Lyons (of the Wall Street Journal) and Gavin Quinney (of Château Bauduc) and I very much appreciated their words at the time. Interestingly, there were also a couple of snarky comments from better established wine writers; I know the wine writing world is not without its fair share of bitchiness, but the willingness of some higher up the wine-writing ladder to take a kick from above was certainly new to me.

Although nerve-wracking (and also exciting at the same time), the move to a subscription basis has also been quite a liberating experience, because I no longer worry about vanity metrics such as Klout and other ranking systems, many of which tend to reflect how active you are on social media. Such ranking systems never take into account how many subscribers you have – in other words, how many people are willing to pay for what you write. It is my subscribers that matter now, and I am happy to say there are many hundreds. I’m looking forward to the day (hopefully!) when I can write thousands instead of hundreds. Who knows, it might just come.

Madeira terraces, July 2013

I would like to thank all my subscribers for their support during 2013; it was a sink-or-swim year for Winedoctor, and I am delighted that Winedoctor is front-crawling along very confidently, hopefully based on my commitment to keep visiting and exploring my two regions of interest, Bordeaux (two visits this year) and the Loire Valley (three visits this year) plus the occasional other region (this year I also visited and reported on Madeira, above). My year-one target for subscribers (I’m not usually this organised, but I had to draw up some targets for a business plan to submit to the bank and the credit card handling company) was reached ten days after putting up the firewall, and my year-two target after one month. After nine months I am edging towards my year-five target – come April, and the end of the first year of Winedoctor subscriptions, it seems clear I will have to develop some new targets!

I would also like to thank some notable UK retailers and merchants, in particular Giles Cooper of Bordeaux Index, Charles Lea of Lea & Sandeman, and the team at Lay & Wheeler, all of whom have been supportive in the last year, either through invitations to significant tastings, or publicising my notes and other writings. Thanks also as always to Jim Budd and Richard Bampfield, who have been supportive in setting up visits and in Jim’s case even arranging and hosting an entire harvest-time trip.

I shall round off here by wishing all my readers festive best wishes, and much joy in the year to come. Over the next few days I will publish a few reflections on my favourite wines of the year, as well my plans for the year ahead (which will include a Winedoctor-led four-day tour of Bordeaux – full details to follow) and also my annual statement of disclosure, a now-regular ritual that seems to delight some, and infuriate others. All the more reason to press on with it then.

Bordeaux: Off the Beaten Track

After reporting on a good-value Bordeaux earlier this week, the 2010 Château de l’Estang, from the Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux appellation, here is another less pricy Bordeaux of some merit. The style here is completely different; whereas the 2010 Castillon majored on Merlot, and showed the purity of fruit from this top-quality vintage very nicely, this wine shows a much more reserved, slightly austere character, which takes some time to really open up in the glass.

Château Bel Air de Royere

This is, I suspect, mainly because we have moved back to the 2008 vintage here, although the fact that this wine includes 30% Malbec in the blend may perhaps also be important. The 2008 Château Bel Air la Royère, from Blaye, has a fresh, fairly dark hue. The nose is attractive, with dark berry fruits, quite tense in its suggestions, lightly smoky and with touches of tobacco leaf, bright and rather keen. The palate is as tense and upright as the nose suggested, although there is a little more supple weight in the middle. A rather firm tannic backbone, with a dry and savoury substance through into the finish, and fresh acidity. It needs food to show its best, but in the right circumstances, it works well. 14.5/20 (December 2013)

Disclosure: This wine was a sample from Cadman Fine Wines.

Loire Misunderstood #4: Sancerre; not for the Sauvignon

It’s been a while since I have taken the opportunity to promulgate one of my beliefs regarding the wines of the Loire Valley. Indeed, the last episode seems to have been the Light and Easy-Drinking Reds post that I wrote back in July. Time to get on with another one, I think.

A focus for my updates next year will the central vineyards, i.e. Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and Menetou-Salon, long overdue I think, a realisation that came to me when I visited Sancerre and Chavignol earlier this year. When Sancerre is good, I really enjoy it. When it isn’t, it can be pretty horrible stuff. I believe in part this reflects fruit ripeness, as certainly the less appealing wines usually have a fairly raw, green fruit character to them that never appeals to my palate.

This is looking at Sancerre at a very basic level though – after all, anybody can distinguish between unripe and ripe Sauvignon Blanc. You only have to look at the wines of Graves, and contrast those that delay for ripeness (Domaine de Chevalier, Smith-Haut-Lafitte, Brown) with those that tend to pick earlier (Olivier, Carbonnieux) to see what a huge effect picking ripe fruit can have. It’s just the same in Sancerre.

Sauvignon Blanc on a sorting table, October 2013

Where Sancerre starts to get really interesting though is in terroir expression; this is where the wines leave behind the fruit flavours (green or otherwise) that we would normally associate with Sauvignon Blanc (you know the drill – green bell pepper, asparagus and pea, moving to yellow pepper, yellow plum and ultimately passion fruit when ripe) and begin to express characteristics that talk more of the soils that the fruit. I assume this reflects yields as well as ripeness, and perhaps there are other nuances also at play. I aim to find out more next year.

Most of Sancerre is limestone, with terres blanches (classic Kimmeridgian limestone, like Chablis) or caillottes (much more stony soils, often Portlandian/Oxfordian). The major difference this engenders is in the substance of the wine, which is frequently quite bold, firm and structured in style. The flavours can vary from orchard fruit to a more minerally character, reminiscent of white stone. A much rarer terroir is silex, in other words flint; here the wine often seems to have a more lifted, dancing character, with a lacy, filigree style; I often liken it to Mosel Riesling more than any other wine, although obviously it doesn’t have the sweetness or the Riesling character. But look beyond technical issues such as residual sugar, and mere flavours, to the way the wine feels in the mouth, and you will see the similarities. The flavours often tend more towards citrus character, especially tangerine and other orange fruits, all of which would be very surprising to a palate used only to, for example, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

It is really at this stage that Sancerre gets interesting to me. It is strange to think so much New World Sauvignon Blanc was planted to emulate this style, and yet at the very peak of the Sancerre appellation there is really no suggestion on the palate that Sauvignon even has a role here. I come to these wines to sense the soils from which they come, not for the Sauvignon.

Another Enticing Beaujolais

It’s always fun to discover a new and enjoyable wine; it’s even better when you realise it isn’t a one-off, and that the domaine in question can give you more of the same. I recently enjoyed the 2011 Régnié from Domaine Lagneau, and from the same source I have found the 2011 Côte-de-Brouilly to be similarly enticing. Proprietor Gérard Lagneau has just 0.6 hectares in this Beaujolais cru, as opposed to 12 hectares in Régnié. The philosophy is the same – enherbement, working the soil, lutte raisonnée, semi-carbonic maceration, temperature control and no added yeast.

Domaine Lagneau Côte de Brouilly 2011

Domaine Lagneau Côte de Brouilly 2011: This has a dark core and yet a vibrant plum hue to the rim. There is a really confident fruit-rich nose, dark with notes of blackberry, creamed plum and dark cherry. There is a little savoury, earthy tobacco-tinged note first, but this seems to give way to a more polished, vanilla coated character later on. This is followed by a cool yet weighty seam of dark berry fruit in the mouth and the middle is just as dark and characterful, and here it does show a little savoury hint, as well as some ripe, velvety tannins. It culminates in a clean acid-fresh finish, with a little residual grip. I like it. More please. 16.5/20 (December 2013)

Disclosure: This wine was a sample from Winedoctor sponsor Cadman Fine Wines.